If Guadalupe was the definitive eatery on colourful K Rd in the late 80s-early 90s, by the time it had closed its doors, Verona Cafe, which blasted on to the scene in 1992, had also become a firm favourite. It was here you'd gather around one of their big wooden tables, where the waitresses were madly hip, the kitchen made vegetarian food cooler than cool, the menu featured "organic ingredients" and offered free range meats long before it was mainstream and the bar seemed to be open all hours.
The clientele of musicians, artists and art students, poets and bohemian types made for a vibe inside those ruby red walls that few other venues in Auckland at that time managed to achieve. But a new decade rolled over, it changed hands and we grew apart, or grew up perhaps, and for the past 10 years I've steered clear for fear of being reminded of my age. Now another change of ownership has enticed me back.
Husband and wife Annabelle Guinness and Phil Randle, co-founders of the Leigh Sawmill, together with Tim Mercer, have taken over Verona, revamping the decor, doing away with the scarlet walls but thankfully leaving the shimmering sequinned sign unchanged. Inside shelves of gleaming preserves line the walls, creating a homely feel and the menu has had a complete makeover. Many of the ingredients featured come from the suppliers to the Matakana farmers market, where for the past three years Annabelle has had a stall.
Small dishes come in at $7, the larger versions for little more than $15, making this affordable eating.
We slid into a booth and were looked after by Saffron, Queen of the Spices - daughter of the owners - and a bright young thing she was, happily telling us that if we ordered only one of the "Chinese Whispers" she was sure we'd end up arguing over it. She was probably right; these spherical sesame seed coated delights were a delicious mouthful; chewy with glutinous rice flour and smooth with mashed kumara, imbued with the uplifting flavour of kaffir lime. The combination of crispiness and chewiness was tremendous.
The section on slow-cooked dishes suits the season so we went to town on these - a dish of duck and lentil was alive with the spiciness of chilli and five spice, a venison ragout on potato gratin exemplified comfort food and a tamarind and three bean ratatouille was tasty, though the croutons of (intentionally) stale bread it was served on were tooth-breakingly hard and needed to be smaller, or left for longer to soften, for this dish to have worked completely. A mushroom stroganoff dealt a rich blow of creaminess.
If anything however the dishes lost something as a group by all being served on some form of starch base - rice, bread, potato - and though this obviously helps in keeping the prices affordable, it did have the effect of making them all slightly unsophisticated. I'd like to have seen more of the duck, mushrooms, venison, beans.
To finish we couldn't resist the brandy snaps and a panna cotta. The latter was scented with kaffir lime and topped with stewed tamarillos - an intriguing flavour combination. The brandy snaps are a nifty idea but it's a shame they're not made in-house.
By the end of our meal we'd eaten plenty yet still felt wholesome and light, and the bill was very modest - and for these reasons, and the range of Leigh Sawmill beer available on tap, I'd return to the new-look Verona. The grunginess that has kept me away hasn't disappeared completely but some of the food is clever and I'll be watching closely to see how the menu develops. Perhaps I'll even head along for one of their live music nights on a Wednesday - I hear they've become a roaring success with music aficionados dropping in for cameo appearances. Auckland now has its own little slice of the Sawmill and the legend of Verona lives on.
From the menu: Chinese whispers $4 each, salumaria Sicilian pork sausage $5, tamarind, eggplant and bean ratatouille $15, duck and lentil chili $15, Mediterranean seafood on rice $15, venison ragout $5, mushroom stroganoff $5, kaffir lime panna cotta with tamarillo compote $7, brandy snaps $3 each.
Drinks: Fully licensed